Chico, Pulga and Pequena are three teenagers living in the small village of Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. They are not related but are close enough in friendship to be so. Chico lives with Pulga, having been orphaned when his mother died from a fall from a public bus. Pulga lives with his mother and dreams of traveling to the US to meet up with his father, a US citizen who married his mom and then left later with promises to send for them. (He has not been heard from again, but Pulga has carefully planned and plotted his route to California, where he expects to somehow meet up with his dad and form a band, playing the guitar like him.) Chico and Pulga attend school together, but Pequena, who is expecting a child, lives with her mother, refusing to acknowledge the life-changing event that she is facing.
Despite the usual bullying and hassles that teenage boys everywhere endure in school situations, Chico and Pulga are facing more threatening challenges from the local thugs. After witnessing the execution of a local store owner, they soon realize that they can either capitulate and become errand boys for the local kingpin (Rey) or they can continue to be brutalized until they are finally killed. Lovely Pequena, in the meantime, has become the unwilling focus of Rey’s attention. She hates him. He crawls through her bedroom window every night and it is he who is the father of the child she wants to forget. When he presents her with a large diamond engagement ring and tells her she will always be his possession, she approaches Chico and Pulga and tells them it is time to leave.
Without a word to anyone, the three start the long trek from Guatemala to Mexico to Nogales, Arizona. Following the route by way of La Bestia–the long, dangerous train ride through cities and countryside that puts them at risk from human traffickers and thieves–and then walking by foot through desert terrain, the three friends are stretched to the limits of their endurance and their faith. Constantly tested by the harsh conditions, each of the three makes different choices with different outcomes.
For a privileged white American, this is an extremely humbling book to read. IMHO it should be required reading in all high school civics classes and then followed up by a serious discussion of what immigration policies of any democratic country should reflect as far as human rights are concerned. Universal themes such as the plight of women’s health and safety, the tyranny of poverty and the failure of governments to provide for the basic needs of its populace should spark the interest of YA readers.
Some offensive language, some sexual references, and a great deal of violence are presented in the book, though none of it is gratuitous.
Categories: Books We Recommend, Bullying, Civil Rights, Crime, Death and Grieving, Depression, Differently Abled, Diversity, Dysfunctional Relationships, Grief, Immigrants, Peer Relationships, Political Activism, Social Disorders, Supernatural/Occult, Violence